Our First Labrador Retriever

Nutmeg in the dishwashwer

Did (or does) your puppy climb into your dishwasher to lick the dirty dishes? Nutmeg got away with this until she was obviously heavy enough to strain the hinges on the dishwasher door. While this photo features Nutmeg as a puppy, the accompanying article is about one of her predecessors.

Stacy, Spooner, and I had good lives in our two-family house in Boston. We lived on the second floor and reserved access to the basement where we had a washer, dryer, deep freeze, and a growing collection of woodworking tools. Our small yard came with a fence, so Spooner could be out by herself, but she usually insisted on coming inside as soon as she noticed we’d gone inside.

Happy as she was, I felt guilty leaving Spooner alone for long work days. She fed the guilt by chewing stuff we wish she hadn’t. For example, she once reached through a baby gate to snag a nearly unused cold-weather Qualofill sleeping bag. Stacy and I were at work, so I don’t know how long it took Spooner to spread the Qualofill all over the living room. This kind of behavior, we understood, is a measure of a dog’s boredom; if Spooner wasn’t bored, she wouldn’t chew our stuff.

Chocolate Surprise

A friend at work told me of her friend’s Chocolate Lab. The Lab spent the entire workday in a basement room, so naturally, when the family got home and brought the dog upstairs, it went dog-happy crazy. This had become dangerous as the family included a toddler; the dog’s antics were simply too rough for the child… so the poor puppy ended up back in the basement each evening where it languished until an adult could give it a few minutes of attention.

My friend mentioned the dog often and suggested that I should offer to adopt it; she insisted that the owners would happily give it up if I wanted it.

Wet and muddy Olive

Early in our relationship, Olive demonstrated Labrador Retriever love for wet and muddy. She was cute, but it was more than a year before she felt to me as my dog.

Perfect, I thought! A companion for Spooner! Still, the idea of having two dogs at once was strange and a bit scary. I mentioned it half-heartedly to Stacy, and over the course of many weeks the topic arose, faded out, and arose again. I had no conviction to adopt this neglected dog, and was kind of teasing the limits of Stacy’s tolerance. Had she expressed concern and desire to rescue the Chocolate Lab, I’d have committed, but Stacy didn’t seem enthusiastic either.

Stacy took me to dinner in Chinatown to celebrate my 30th birthday. There I discovered she had brilliantly engineered a surprise party and Chinese banquet with about 30 guests—including family and friends who had traveled hundreds of miles for the event. The super-surprise gift beyond the party was an OK to bring home that neglected Chocolate Lab. Now, whether or not I wanted the dog, she was going to be ours.

Friend for a Friend

Our new Chocolate Lab, Olive, was just over a year old—a few years younger than Spooner. I wasn’t smitten. In fact, I didn’t particularly like Olive. She seemed kind of stupid; to borrow from a newspaper article I read about that time, she was as smart as a two-by-four.

An early warning flag came a day or two after we took Olive home: We returned from work with some trepidation. How had the two dogs fared on this second day together? As we climbed the stairs the question changed to “Where had the two dogs fared?” Spooner greeted us alone and there was no sign of Olive!

Spooner and Olive played well together

No way these two played like this when we were away at work, but for an hour or so after we got home, Spooner and Olive became crazed maniacs. We rarely played human/dog games with them because they kept each other entertained.

We checked and double-checked the accessible spaces, we opened the bedroom doors, we looked under furniture; we didn’t find Olive. We speculated about someone breaking in to steal our purebred dog, or about some amazing talent the dog must have, and finally I went back down the stairs where the entryway coat closet’s door was closed tight.

I pushed the door inward, and there was our new dog sitting quietly in the dark. How long had it been since she’d trapped herself? Clearly, she had waited patiently. Perhaps she thought this was her place having lived so long with a small basement room as her world.

Duo Dog Dynamics

Fortunately, to challenge my lack of enthusiasm for her, Olive was a dog. She craved attention which meant she worked pretty hard to win me over.

She and Spooner got along charmingly, but we quickly learned an incredible truth that no one tells you when you muse about getting a second dog to keep your first dog company: For the most part, dogs don’t play together unless you’re watching them. This is important, so I’m repeating it: Except in rare cases, your two dogs WILL NOT play together unless they think you’re watching them.

Spooner and Olive nap on the sofa

I’ve no doubt our doggies spent the day doing this stuff while my wife and I were at work. Fortunately, they did some of it as well while we were home or they would have driven us nuts. I love the complete abandon Spooner and Olive shared both when they played and when they rested.

What this meant was that Spooner and Olive slept from when we left to work in the morning until we walked in the door in the evening. They might have snuggled, keeping each other company, but they didn’t romp … except that one time. That time they chose not to sleep in the black, furry bean-bag chair I’d bought in college, but rather to gut it, spreading thousands of tiny Styrofoam beads everywhere. (I think Spooner gutted the chair figuring we’d blame the new dog, but neither ever confessed.)

Did I mention that our two dogs never played together unless they thought we were watching? As soon as we sat down in the living room, Spooner and Olive went nuts. They’d snarl and bite and snarl and pounce and snarl and run and snarl. We’d lift our legs clear as the dogs tumbled through, and the dogs were happy NOT to have us throw toys or play tug-of-war (are there other dog/human games? Does it matter?)

When our darling dingoes tired, they’d lounge on the sofa, usually pressed together or draped over each other. At night, they’d sleep on the foot of the bed which wasn’t a great arrangement, but it satisfied my lifelong desire to rebel against my parents’ rule: No dogs on the beds. Stacy, very clearly, did not approve but she indulged me (and the dogs). She can be a patient person.

It was more than a year before I felt toward Olive that she was our dog and it took even longer for her to win me to the wiles of Labradors. Given the topic of this blog, you’ve probably surmised that Olive did sell me on Labradors. Her sales methods deserve a post of their own.



Life Partner and Puppy

Nutmeg trying to chew even while sleeping

At an early age, Nutmeg foreshadowed the joy she was destined to bring us. As a puppy, Nutmeg once lay chewing on someone’s nylon tote bag. After a scolding, she remained curled up with the bag in her mouth, but she fell asleep. Nutmeg is by far the most orally-fixated dog I’ve known. While this blog is about Nutmeg, today’s post is about events that led up to Nutmeg joining our family.

Boston in autumn of 1983 was exciting to a kid from a semirural upbringing. I worked as a typist in more than a dozen companies including Polaroid, MIT, IBM, and Lotus Development Corporation. I felt amazingly fortunate eventually to receive job offers from both IBM and Lotus, but choosing between them was easy: the young, rising star company with their magical electronic 1-2-3 spreadsheet appealed to the thrill seeker in me.

I was the first employee hired specifically to work on a magazine Lotus was planning to introduce. There were already future magazine employees, but they had started at Lotus in other jobs. Soon came a publisher, his assistant, editors, copyeditors, a production manager, and an advertising sales team. I got to see a magazine publishing company assemble around me, and I participated in defining the magazine’s content, design, and tone. Oh, but the Publisher’s assistant.

Being socially and emotionally stunted, I hit on her within the week she started at the magazine. She agreed to eat lunch with me on a bench by the Charles River, and when I suggested dating, she shot me down; there was a boyfriend.

Slow Starter

For some two years, I managed to spend an unnecessary amount of time hanging out in the magazine’s marketing department—just outside the publisher’s door. That’s where the unavailable publisher’s assistant sat. There were corporate events where we interacted, and she graciously invited me to participate in social activities involving a subset of employees who were all starting their careers. I even met the boyfriend a few times.

Then, amazingly, there was a spark. Nearly the entire magazine attended a sales meeting at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. While most of the staff headed out to party late, I (being socially and emotionally stunted) preferred to hang back and read in my room. The publisher’s assistant also hung back, and we spent at least one evening chatting and looking at constellations. Still there was the boyfriend.

Pound Puppy

Wedding invitation cover

Our wedding invitation was not traditional. I posed some plush toy doggies holding a rope tied in a figure eight knot and wrote the obvious pun, “Stacy and Daniel Tie the Knot.” We used the two as the cover for our invitations. Could this have been a sign that real dogs were in our future?

To this day, I can’t fathom why she did, but about 13 months after the sales meeting in Georgia, the publisher’s assistant married me. And about a week after our honeymoon, I invited her to join me for a drive to an unnamed destination. As I turned into the entrance of the nearest SPCA pound (back then we were only just beginning to call them shelters), she warned me: “You know if we go in here we’re going to leave with a dog.”

I reassured her that that wasn’t necessary; I had a habit of visiting dog pounds without adopting dogs. My wife (“My wife!” Three weeks! Whoa.) got all misty-eyed about a six-month-old black dog with perky ears, and we left with it.

Spooner and Stacy get acquainted
At six months and fresh from the SPCA pound, Spooner was already an armful. The professional model holding Spooner in this photo is the same hapless woman who, for as yet unfathomable reasons, agreed to marry me.

In the naming discussion, I explained about my silly idea to name each of my dogs after the traditional Scottish word for a golf club. My previous dog had been Niblick and I listed the few clubs whose names I could remember: Cleek, Mashie, Spoon, and Brassie. We settled on Spoon, but added “er,” so our (“OUR!”) first dog became Spooner.

Spooner the Entertainer

We felt terrible about the long hours we left Spooner alone, so we took turns going home at lunch to walk her and give her attention. It was always painful to leave her on my way back to the afternoon shift.

Spooner jumps for a helium balloon
To Spooner, helium balloons were the bomb. It didn’t take her long to figure out she could leap high, grab the ribbon, and repeat until she had dragged a balloon to the floor. This photo captured her on her second jump; she had already pulled down once on the ribbon and was leaping to grab it again closer to the balloon.

It would be hard to choose just a few of Spooner’s antics to share if I could remember all of them. I suppose we captured the most impressive on film. She came up with one when she was quite young that revealed uncanny intelligence: We had a helium-filled balloon with a long ribbon that hung almost to the ground. Spooner was fascinated and jumped and snapped at it repeatedly. After some amount of crazed engagement, She discovered she could pull down on the ribbon, re-grip it before the balloon rose to the ceiling, pull down again, and so on. Then, she bit the balloon. I swear she was near tears when it popped.

Of course, from that moment we couldn’t keep helium balloons with long ribbons in the house. It took Spooner just seconds to pull one down and bite it—I guess the joy of the conquest far overshadowed the sadness that came with the balloon’s destruction.

Spooner and a balloon she destroyed
Having isn’t always as satisfying as wanting.

Spooner loved to help Stacy (my wife) exercise. When Stacy sat on the floor to stretch, Spooner slung her legs over Stacy’s shoulders and leaned hard, providing extra weight so Stacy could bend lower. When Stacy lay flat to do leg lifts, Spooner tried to climb Stacy’s leg—I’m sure this increased the value of the exercise.

Spooner helps Stacy exercise
How can this NOT be a more complete stretching experience than attempting the same exercise dogless? Rather than her using a private room to stretch, Stacy preferred the living room and seemed to think I should restrain Spooner. Hmmm … Struggle to hold off a dog, or enjoy the free entertainment. Which would you choose?

My wife urged me to understand that Spooner’s helpfulness wasn’t supposed to entertain me. Rather, it was supposed to anger me so I would hold Spooner back and let Stacy exercise on her own. I chose entertainment.

During car rides when Spooner was small, she would curl up on the cargo cover under the sloping window in the back of our hatchback. Thankfully, she gave up that perch before she was too big to block our view through the rearview mirror. Spooner had the run of the furniture in our house. In fact, Spooner slept on the foot of our bed and that was OK. (Idiosyncratically, I wanted Spooner to have the few comforts my parents never allowed for Whisper: being on the furniture and sleeping with humans rather than in the basement. Stacy was very tolerant.)

Spooner the Toughie

Have you ever teased your dog by spraying water toward it? The dogs I’ve known tended to duck. Not Spooner. To Spooner, spray from a garden hose was an invitation to play. Actually, spray didn’t interest her as much as did a water jet. When I concentrated the spray nozzle for its most powerful stream and pointed it toward Spooner, she’d charge at the nozzle letting the water shoot at full force directly into her mouth. This, she told me was one of the greatest games.

Spooner rode on the cargo cover
It’s hard to get a decent photo when you’re aiming over your shoulder and trying to keep the car on the road. Spooner, like so many dogs, had a dominant “here’s a cute thing to do” gene and it expressed itself when she rode in the car.

And what Spooner taught us about douche! Turns out that skunks wander freely about in the city of Boston. Occasionally after a dog walk I’d wait on the street for a skunk to leave our yard before Spooner and I could go inside. The first time Spooner met a skunk face-to-face, the skunk won the conversation.

We learned from our vet that Massengill douche is effective at removing skunk odor from a dog. Buying a shopping cart full of douche, I’m sure, helped me conquer some of my social awkwardness. When you try douche with your next skunk incident, don’t believe anything you read about using two ounces of it in a gallon of water. Apply the douche undiluted directly to the dog. Apply it liberally. Apply it often. Rinse and repeat and do it again and again. Your dog will smell less bad; more less bad than it will if you wash it with vinegar and tomato juice.

Good times. But despite the fond memories, Spooner was the worst dog I’ve ever had. And that’s a story for another post.